Is Your Swag a Drag? 5 Tips to Make Your Promotional Giveaways Brag-Worthy

Dollar for dollar, impression for impression, giving away logoed products is the cheapest form of advertising, according to a 2016 Advertising Specialty Impressions study of over 100,000 consumers. The study also found that people younger than 55 prefer branded merchandise over all other forms of advertising, and like Internet and mobile ads the least.

So you should probably do a Google search for “company swag” and order a bunch of hats, T-shirts and calendars today, right? Not so fast, says Vickie MacFadden, owner of PROMOrx, which has been supplying companies with branded merchandise for more than 15 years.

The good thing about putting your logo on giveaway items is that people remember your brand for months or years after receiving a promotional product from you. The bad thing? Your customers may remember you in ways you wished they’d forget.

So before you load up a shopping cart with $5 hats or $1 calendars, keep your brand and audience top of mind.

“The worst swag is not necessarily the item itself but the disconnect that is created when it’s not in keeping with your brand,” MacFadden says. PROMOrx recently filled a brand-appropriate logoed product order for a high-end fashion designer who has designed dresses for a First Lady, a Princess, and an Academy Award-winning actress. The company chose a sleek metal pen/stylus combo as a promotional item. Like the designer, the pen had style.

Avoid giving out bad swag by keeping the following advice from customers and marketers in mind.

1. Keep the implicit message of a branded product in mind

Michael Montgomery, a nonprofit management and economic consultant, admits he was responsible for selecting the worst swag of his career. It was a flashlight handed out at a major trade show on behalf of the economic development department of a public utility company. “One recipient looked at it quizzically and said, ‘Great message, guys. Come to Michigan where even the electric company thinks you’re gonna need a flashlight.’  That was a big oops.”

Montgomery says he received a much better message from the state of Iowa’s department of economic development. It was a series of three Iowa-logoed gifts: sunscreen, beach ball, and sunglasses during a summer in which the Mississippi had flooded several cities and towns.

The message? “In Iowa, the future is so bright you’re gonna need shades,” Montgomery says. “It was a great promotion that got site selectors refocused on Iowa’s positives even as it was working to recover from a not insignificant natural disaster.”

2. Don’t devalue your brand with cheap promotional products

It’s one thing for an independent pizza store to hand out refrigerator magnets, another for a luxury car company to give away cheap, poorly made T-shirts. You don’t want your customers to consciously think about the value of your gift compared to the value of their business, MacFadden says.

Pantea Izadseta, who recently left a career in corporate finance to launch Pantya, a women’s shoe company, says she pays close attention to the promotional items she receives from retailers.  She says she has sometimes been disappointed by repetitive gifts, such as bags, or logoed items that did not properly represent a brand.

Izadseta gives high marks to Neiman Marcus.  The retailer gave her a see-through tote with two handles, a great beach bag with a design that aligns with the brand.  She loves the bag and uses it frequently.

3. Consider evidence against giving away branded baseball caps

Ian Wright says “badly-fitting, ugly baseball caps” are the worst promotional items he’s ever received. Wright, founder of MoverDB, an international moving website, has received dozens of bad caps over the years but never worn a single one.

His anecdote is backed up by the research from Advertising Specialty Impressions. Nearly six out of 10 Californians will toss a logoed hat if they don’t like the way it looks on them; Floridians, however, may be less fussy. Nearly eight out of 10 people in the Sunshine State wear a logoed hat at least once a week.

4. Choose swag that makes an emotional connection with your customers

Bryan Clayton, CEO of GreenPal, a lawn care service based in Nashville, Tennessee, patterned after the Uber business model, says he started his business believing that “swag is a total waste of money, and I took a page out of Mark Cuban’s playbook who said ‘if somebody sends me a polo with their logo on it, I will not invest in the company.’”

His co-founder changed his mind with a clever and inexpensive swag idea that’s turned dog owners into grateful customers. All dog owner customers, who must advise GreenPal that they have pets on their property, receive a gift of dog bones that are tied with a ribbon and attached to a thank you card and stickers.

“I have been proven wrong because of the tons of thank yous over Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter because of the dog bone gifts that we sent to our customers,” says Clayton. “This translated into tons of traffic for our website and also earned us reviews on Yelp, all because of sending this little bit of swag out.”

5. Know your brand and understand your audience

People’s reactions to different types of promo products will differ as a matter of taste, MacFadden says. Some people swear they will never do business with a company that gives them a pen. Others–herself included–like good pens. A Star Trek fan, MacFadden loves the space pen, which writes from any angle.

You can’t please everyone as a matter of taste, so it helps to buy a variety of items to better your odds of pleasing a large part of your audience over time. But what you can–and should–focus on is whether a branded product makes your company look good in the eyes of your audience.

It makes a difference what your company sells and who it sells it to. What a diaper company gifts to young mothers should most likely differ from the swag a steel manufacturer sends to auto companies.

The worse the swag, the longer it will be remembered

Bad swag memories have real staying power. Gretchen Barry, a California marketing and communications consultant, left the worst piece of swag on her desk for several years and still laughs about the unfortunate branded product.

“A small square box was delivered to my office one day,” she says. “It was from a company that creates promotional material so I figured it was a sample of some kind. As I flipped the lid open, there was a small card at the top concealing the contents inside. The card read, ‘We can help you get your foot in the door.’ I removed the layer of packing paper and inside was what looked like a baby’s severed foot.”

She never did business with the company. She never forgot the baby’s foot.

There’s no question that swag leaves a lasting impression. Make sure it leaves the one you intend.

Article courtesy of


Katherine Kotaw
Katherine Kotaw is CEO of KOTAW Content Marketing, an international marketing strategy company headquartered in Los Angeles. KOTAW tells — and sells – stories across multi-channel marketing platforms for SMBs and Fortune 500 companies as large as HBO, Disney and Mattel. Katherine teaches storytelling for the Content Marketing Institute. Connect with Katherine on social media or her website to learn more about personal and corporate branding.